The vision of a frightened African-American woman on the auction block clutching her child to her chest as the bidding commenced renders an iconic image that has often served as a powerful ingredient in fiction to conjure up the helplessness and hopelessness that beset chattel slaves in the antebellum south. Such as:
Adeline reluctantly stepped up on the block amid a crowd of unfamiliar onlookers. Arms crossed, head covered, she gripped her young to her chest to shield him from the spectacle of shame they were about to experience. The audience admired her dark olive skin and her evidence of fecundity. Her ten-week-old son was living proof that she was a child-bearing woman. Adeline had “a very fine forehead, pleasing countenance and mild, lustrous eyes,” while her son was a “light-colored, blue eyed curly-silked-haried [sic] child” Positioned on the Columbia, South Carolina, courthouse steps, the two awaited their fate. “Gentlemen, did you ever see such a face, and head, and form, as that?” the auctioneer inquired, taking off her hood.” She is only 18 years old, and already has a child [who] will consequently make a valuable piece of property for someone. The bidder and Adeline struggled with her hood as he praised her skill. “She is a splendid housekeeper and seamstress,” he continued. By this time, tears filled her eyes, “and at every licentious allusion she cast a look of pity and woe at the auctioneer, and at the crowd.” As the sale continued, the auctioneer took Adeline’s hood off three more times to show “her countenance” and every time, she quickly replaced it. When he was exposed, her son “cast a terrified look on the auctioneer and bidders,” each time his face was revealed. Perhaps at his young age, he sensed his mother’s terror. Within minutes, the sale was complete, and Adeline “descended the courthouse steps, looked at her new master, looked at the audience, looked fondly to her sweet child’s face, and pressed it warmly to her bosom,” while the auctioneer jeered, “that child wouldn’t trouble her purchaser long.” The threat of separation followed enslaved people to the auction block. [p10-11]
Yet, the foregoing is not an overwrought scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin or a sensationalist TV movie, but rather the report of an actual slave auction from the opening chapter of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. In a remarkably original contribution to the historiography of African-American slavery in the United States, Daina Ramey Berry, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, reminds us that Adeline and her infant were subjected to this humiliating dehumanization on those long-ago courthouse steps for a specific reason: they each held a tangible value associated with real dollar signs for the buyer and the seller. Adeline especially was worth something because, as we learn from this account, she was an attractive young woman, she had household skills, and she was fecund. Adeline in this sense was not a human being, but property, plain and simple, and property has a value.
In a well-written, thought-provocative, and strikingly innovative addition to the existing body of scholarship on American slavery, Berry sets out to locate what that specific value was and how it was rationally determined, not only for Adeline but for all of the many millions of those once held in bondage: men, women, children, infants – even the dead. In this slim volume, based on extensive research, she largely succeeds, but even more significantly her work profoundly alters the way historians will conceptualize the slave-person ever after. In Maps of Time, “Big History” scholar David Christian aptly dubs slaves as human batteries. That is a useful construct. Berry’s construct is equally useful, as she hangs a dollar sign around every neck and demonstrates how, in the peculiar version of African slavery that developed in the United States, some human beings, bought and sold just like batteries adapted for specific utilizations, came to be worth more than others, and how that value changed over a lifetime.
In The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, it is clear that there were a whole host of values for human chattel slaves that are commonly overlooked. For instance, there was an appraised value, which was often noted in account books and wills. There was also a market value, which just like in an automobile or a home could pointedly differ from appraisal. Rarely acknowledged, there was also the value placed upon a slave when insured against loss by their owner, and the premium that was paid, again just like a car or a house. Some of this value was based upon what role the slave property could perform. A strong man who could work in the fields was worth X. A competent woman who could sew or keep house was worth Y. A young woman who was fertile and could be bred like livestock was worth Z. If she was attractive, like Adeline, and could serve as an object of the flesh for her owner, all the better, and her value increased. Age was also a strong determinant in assigned values. In an era of high infant and child mortality, babies and small children were worth very little, but each year that they survived their assessed value increased until at fourteen they achieved something like adult status. Slaves had the greatest value during their prime years, driven by capability and productivity. Berry articulates this in a chilling passage:
Sellers prepared the enslaved for display determined the condition of their health and sometimes rated them on a five-point scale of 0 to 1 in increments of 0.25. Prime or full hands had a rating of 1 or A1 Prime, which represented a projection of the amount of work a person could perform in a given day. Prime hands, typically between the ages of fifteen and thirty, were the strongest laborers on farms and plantations . . . Other enslaved people had their rates set at three-fourth hand, one-half hand, or for those unable to work or contribute to the plantation economy, zero. This rating system resembles US Department of Agriculture (USDA) meat grades, in which beef undergoes a “composite evaluation” to determine quality. [p68]
Naturally, supply and demand and transportation costs all factored into the price. Slaves could also be rented out to others, and their labor valued in fractions, much as they were famously assessed as fractional persons for the purposes of representation in the Constitution of the United States. [p84] Value diminished as the slave aged past forty. The author dubs the elderly and past-their-prime “superannuated,” and this class saw their value drop with great significance.
Surprisingly, slaves also had a certain value after death, what Berry terms their “ghost value.” A slave executed for a crime by the state, for instance, had an assessed value that was paid to the owner for his loss in being deprived of their labor. [p98; 112] And the skull and skin of the infamous, such as insurrectionist Nat Turner, commanded a premium on a clandestine market for such goods. [p102-105] Much more astonishing, however, was that the corpses of dead slaves (as well as grave-robbed free blacks!) served as currency for the cadaver trade to medical schools, north and south. With an inspired sense of optimism layered over the revulsion that each of these valuations implies, Berry adds one more value that restores a certain dignity to the dehumanized humanity that she chronicles: “soul value.” The soul value, she underscores, is the value the human slave person placed upon their own life, a value that could not be bought or sold, a value that led one ringleader of a slave revolt to jump from the gallows with a rope around his neck and die on his own terms rather than wait for the trap to drop. [p146]
This is an outstanding book that nevertheless suffers from a handful of flaws. First of all, as Berry assigns average values for her subjects throughout the volume, it soon becomes clear that the exceptions to the rules far outnumber the rules. In other words, values clearly are far less quantifiable than she would suggest. That hardly diminishes the quality of the theme, but nevertheless frustrates the reader as she repeatedly notes what the values should be at the head of the chapter only to detail scores of values that fail to fall into these ranges. In another arena, Berry risks damaging her historical scholarship by repeated attempts to draw bold lines between the slave experience and the contemporary African-American experience and the Black Lives Matter movement. While there is merit to these insights and my own politics happens to coincide with hers, there is no place in a work of history (beyond the preface or epilogue, etc.) to introduce such editorials.
Finally, in a personal quibble, I must admit that I always chafe at the reducing of the greatest pejorative directed at African-Americans by plantation owners and latter day racists to the euphemistic N— or N-word. I realize the word is offensive. It should be! Just as a famous curse loses all power when rendered as the F-word, so too does a word used to denigrate human beings lose the power to shock and repulse when abbreviated and euphemized this way. As the late George Carlin noted with striking political incorrectness, it is all about context. Rap singers and urban youth, black and brown, use the word as kinship, even as a term of endearment. Slave auctioneers used it to dehumanize. Spell it out. Make us wince. We should wince. We should feel the passion and the pain.
Just as we are repulsed by the ordinary, mundane, striking normalcy in the colorless bureaucrats who were the cogs in the wheels of the Nazi death camps, so too are we as readers struck with revulsion for the complicity of all those who participated in the institution of human chattel slavery as well as those who did not object, or objected too little, north and south. The genius in Berry’s work is that by assigning values as she has in this fine narrative we are far more moved by the plight of those otherwise anonymous millions who were valued and used as meat, rather than dignified as unique humans. We can see and feel their soul values, even if they were largely denied these in life. We can honor them further by reading this excellent book and sharing its message.
[Note: I received this edition as part of an Early Reviewer’s program.]